Monday, August 21, 2006

Flashback: Minnesota’s Republican Party is Rebuilt—From the Ground Up…Single Years End and the Two of Us Plan to Move Permanently to the North Star State…Because of the Passion of One Man

[Our children read this fifty year memoir and assuredly no grandchildren do as yet—but someday they might].

While I spent the months in Washington before the wedding, in October, 1959, the new Minnesota Republican chairman, Ed Viehman (pronounced VEEman) was making his strong personality and ideas known in a state where Republicanism was supposed to be passé due to Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor strength. The lesson Viehman conveyed is important for Illinoisans today because this state is regarded as consigned, in perpetuity, to the Democratic party. All kinds of reasons were given Viehman to argue that Minnesota would never come around. First, the Scandinavian temperament. It was viewed as socialistic, progressive, rambunctiously contrary to conservatism; anti-corporation; militantly pro-union, witness Hubert’s landslide victories, the strong hold the party had on all constitutional offices save two and the erosion of a good many congressional seats to the DFL. Second, not only was the Scandinavian temperament maladjusted to Republicanism, the city of St. Paul, heavily Irish Catholic, was wedded to the Democratic party.

Third, the rural areas were turning Democratic, in favor of higher price supports. Fourth: the Iron Range was bitterly anti-business and anti-Republican due to the shut-down of iron ore mines which were tapped out and the resultant unemployment. Fifth: major newspapers…the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune…were thoroughly liberal in news flow and editorials, the St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Pioneer-Press wishy-washy like today’s Chicago Tribune. The major TV outlets and radio stations were similarly liberal. In the era before talk radio (and repeal of the Equal Time provision, there simply was no outlet, beyond the small dailies and weeklies, to carry the Republican message. Fifth, even if Republicanism could survive, it would have to be a very liberal brand which would be indistinguishable from the philosophy of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. It would have to be a critic of corporations, pro-union. The Republican party simply didn’t have people like that: they were supposed to be the antithesis of this and none of them could get elected on a statewide basis: at least for governor or attorney general, the posts that had grist to them.

Sixth: the churches, with a strong base in Minnesota, had become liberal and affianced to the Democratic party. Three heavily dominant Lutheran wings were taken up with support for labor union goals, criticism of business; only the Missouri synod remained at all conservative. The Catholic church, relatively small in the state, had gone to the left.

Seventh, the belief was that even liberal Republicans couldn’t survive the rising Democratic onslaught. In 1958 a liberal Republican U. S. Senator, Ed Thye, liberal on everything, unions and especially farm policy, lost to…believe it or not…a big city Congressman, Eugene McCarthy who represented urban St. Paul, and an Irish Catholic Democrat at that in a heavily Protestant state where anti-Catholicism had been rife. An Irish Catholic Democrat and an ex-Benedictine monk candidate beating a good Norwegian Lutheran Republican farmer Senator! That shows that Republicans just couldn’t win in Minnesota statewide. And, nay-sayers maintained, it wouldn’t win with a new Catholic state chairman who had been a popular radio disc jockey and good morning feel-good host and a vehement conservative at that. Viehman was expected to put zip in communications but the despondent ones said: zip in communications wouldn’t do it alone in a solid Democratic state.

They were right. Viehman’s early background had been in the mass-media but building on that franchise wouldn’t begin to do it. As a powerful radio personality on the state’s biggest radio station, he was known from border to border. But he had been an early morning radio personality who never—and couldn’t due to Equal Time--get involved in political musings on the station. On the radio, he was a funny…sometimes uproariously comedic…personality, like WGN’s Wally Phillips, Bob Collins and Spike O’Dell. A household name, with no political component.

From the outset, Viehman decided that the problem with Minnesota GOP could not be solved solely by a state chairman who would communicate on the issues. Many others had done this—and done it well. It would have to be done by building a grassroots organization. Was he the guy to do it? Answer: decidedly. Viehman had become a dynamic salesman for the Josten Company and he knew that salesmanship depended on (a) information, (b) sales resources and (c) training. He had conducted training sessions for Josten salesmen and he was raring to try it out in Republican politics. He would teach them to organize precinct by precinct across the state. To make this task interesting required salesmanship. “He was the greatest salesman I ever met,” said Josten founder Dan Gainey to me,. Gainey had made multi-millions as a sales giant in his industry. “Up to when I hired Ed, I thought I was the greatest salesman who ever lived. Not after I watched Ed. I was in kindergarten; he in grad school.”

On becoming state chairman, he took his revolutionary conclusion to me. I was the first one to hear it. And did I ever miss the boat…while he was superbly prescient. This is what Viehman laid out to me on the eve of his acceptance of the Republican state chairmanship: “I am going to institute a precinct-by-precinct campaign to organize volunteers.” Oh, Lord, I said: how boring. He added: “I am going to devise a kit complete with radio tapes that will train Republicans how to go door to door, how to see that our constituency is registered, how to go back door-to-door to see that they are educated, how to select good candidates, how to raise grassroots money, how to run campaigns, how to get out the vote, how to see that the vote that is tallied is honestly counted. In short, a how-to kit that will be sent to every grassroots Republican worker in this state. And I am going to visit all the counties and electrify them to do this. I am going to build a fresh party organization—from the ground up! I’m thinking of calling it `Neighbor-to-Neighbor.”

I said: Listen, Viehman, I’ve heard a succession of Republicans say that they were going to train precinct workers. They never accomplished anything in that direction. The only formula is to raise money, tons of it, and put on more TV and radio commercials than the next guy. Your speaking skills are a great plus, will be a great plus in fund-raising. That’s it. People won’t stand for this dull organizing stuff.”

To this shallow pap he rightly exploded with a barnyard exclaimer. He said he would be different. He would do it. And so he did. The news media was bored with the thought but he put me to work, even though I was in Washington, to write the script for “Neighbor to Neighbor: a VIP Program”…Victory Information Program. When I gave him my draft of Neighbor to Neighbor he gave it to other publicists, telling them to re-work it and ruthlessly edited the result himself. He got contributors to give him what then seemed to be a ton of money…but not for commercials but for a splendiferous sales package that rivaled anything the then merchandising giants—Sears, Montgomery Wards—could produce. He went to a top recording studio and delivered his organizational message and had a big advertising firm package it…in four colors and with all the latest whistles and bells. Prospective candidates who wanted to make use of the money for their campaigns were appalled. They said it was a dreadful waste.

“Neighbor-to-Neighbor” kits were turned out by the thousands. Then he hired an organizing staff—one field man—paid remarkably well for the time—for each Congressional district, gave the staff a budget and sent them out as district field salesmen. To keep them on their toes, Viehman would call staff meetings in certain parts of the state at 12 midnight, meaning that wherever they were, they’d have to be there at midnight…driving through the state at night to get there in time by the witching hour. The field men grumbled, shouted but he shouted back. They delivered and the great amorphous latent, lazy GOP electorate recoiled and delivered. Rather, they were delivered.

They were delivered in a coordinated way, with Viehman personally going to all the counties and with his dynamic personality teaching…cajoling…mimicking…joking…and smacking them around for months until they decided to shut him up by doing it. For a steady year he slept in Holiday Inns from the southern line town of LaCrescent (near the Wisconsin border) to International Falls up near Canada and all the hundreds, yes hundreds, of towns and cities in between. Staff meetings were held at odd hours in the damndest state locations: in St. Cloud at 5:45 a.m., Duluth at 11:30 p.m., etc. The staff itself became trained like Green Berets. For outstanding work, they got lavish bonuses. Each staffer was in charge of (a) implementing Neighbor-to-Neighbor in his congressional district; (b) in charge of fund-raising in the district; (c) charged with leadership recruitment from varying sources: business, teaching, the churches. They were paid better than district salesmen working for Josten.

Did they ever turn up the volunteers! Hibbing, in the heart of the economically distressed Iron Range, produced 78 volunteers for the Republicans. Seventy-eight! No one imagined there were 78 Republicans in the whole town.

And once volunteers heard Viehman and followed his rules, they found this grass roots organizing was fun. The media were dumbfounded. Suddenly billboards appeared across the state…long before the political campaign season began…billboards that announced: “The Minnesota Republican Party—Going Like Sixty in Fifty Nine!” He salted rural radio stations with his own commercials, urging people to join up, hear him. I almost thought he would get around to promising free toasters.

His campaign had started, all right: a campaign against inertia and hopelessness in the Republican party. The press paid it scant attention which suited him just fine. He didn’t want them in the pay while he spoke directly like a Drill Instructor or Top Sergeant to the Republican volunteers. He kissed the old ladies and sent them out in the Minnesota cold door-to-door and they loved it. He drank with the men and rallied their spirits. He joked, insulted, screamed, begged his party to get off the mat to which it had consigned itself as an incurable invalid. Without the media recognizing it, it was an inside party effort.

That didn’t mean he ignored the press or the issues. He held news conferences, raised issues, invented phrases that electrified, led the battle against Humphrey and Freeman, supported the Eisenhower administration. I knew it was working when I got a call from Mrs. Elizabeth Heffelfinger. “Your man Viehman,” she said, “is wonderful! He has set ideology aside and has given the troops something they can understand—a manual they can use for victory.” She went on: “I have never seen anything like it. The old rivalries between conservatives and liberal Republicans have ended. They are too damned busy implementing an organizational plan to bitch about anything! There’s a joyful spirit, a joie de vivre! I can honestly say I have never, ever seen a leader like this in my life—in either party! Once he wins here, I’m going to do my damndest to make him our national Republican chairman!”

And she was one national Republican leader who could have done it.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing from this conservative-baiting formerly antagonistic, limousine-riding liberal (almost lefty for the times) Republican dowager. She traveled some with him and gave his cause big bucks. Big bucks: hundreds of thousands earmarked just for precinct organizing. Her society friends said, “Elizabeth! Money to Ed Viehman? Have you lost your mind!” She answered, “shut up, dearie because I’m going to ask you for a check next!” He was a regular guest at her mansion; never, ever talking ideology: just organization, precinct organization until the wee hours. She was a chief mourner at his funeral. They became truly the Odd Couple, neither bringing up ideology for fear of alienating the other—but both working hard on party organization. They both invented the ideas of “rumors in the bars” to be spread by the field men—rumors which circulated throughout the state: unverifiable, dirty pool but exasperating to the Democrats.

I missed a lot of it by being in Washington but the stories came back from the field about his dynamism. And the media, bored, thinking only of issues, was satisfied too—because in his spare time he gave them something to report: bright, acerbic and catchy, pungent phrases. Although they started out hating him for his conservatism, after they drank long hours with him and heard him out, they became convinced he was the party builder of the age. And they speculated about how much fun it would be to see him run for office. The old divisive party antagonisms between left and right melted away like a snow-cone in July.

Wherever he went—to gatherings held by the party’s left…to club meetings called by the party’s centrists…to circles convened by his own rightists…to hoary old Harold Stassen left-wing Republicans. Ed Viehman was adored and became the symbol of party unity and infectious enthusiasm. A key performance was in a tiny Minnesota town up north where farmers’ wives wearing bulky overcoats making notes as mega-multi-millionaire Elizabeth Heffelfinger, attired in a super-chic Persian Lamb jacket spoke to them in terms that got them jumping up from their chairs and yelling…as Viehman stood back and grinned.

Believe me, while the media saw him as an exciting partisan and didn’t cover the organization part (organization is deadly boring for them), Hubert Humphrey, an exciting organizer himself, knew what Viehman was doing in political organization, and Humphrey sent out spies to the Republican meetings to see what was happening. The spy filtered in to the northern Minnesota farm meeting where Heffelfinger appeared. He raced back and told Hubert, “My God! We’ve spent years trying to antagonize these farm women about the insensitive rich—and Viehman produced one of the richest women in the country and these farm babes loved her!” Humphrey groaned. His class warfare theme was evaporating and there was no issue he could attack: but an age-old one—one which was supposed to be as dull as nuts and bolts: political organization! Humphrey knew what would happen next. He had a premonition that the Republicans could come back and Viehman would be a force to be reckoned with for many years. All the DFL labor union organization could not stand against Viehman’s volunteers.

They were not to see that, alas. Ed Viehman was dead of colon cancer (died actually of pneumonia caused by the ravages of the deadly chemo that lowered his resistance so much that he perished not of cancer but the “cure”) at the age of 39 after a Republican governor was elected using Viehman’s organizing program in 1960: a governor who campaigned on economic development and assistance for industry, unheard of in that liberal state. I frankly think Viehman would have eschewed a candidacy (although he had dreamed of it) in order to be named Republican National chairman—and news of his electric leadership had set the wheels in motion for that to happen with Elizabeth poised to go on the phone and start the wheels turning…when he died of the cancer “cure” despite anything Mayo Brothers could do. (Ironically, his great adversary, Humphrey, died of the same “cure” that was imparted to fight bladder cancer.)

Since I returned to Illinois and saw the dispirited Illinois Republican party torn into fragments by ideological division, told that the GOP can never return because of the huge Cook county vote margins, the liberalization of the suburbs and exurbs, I have remembered what Viehman had done. If a Viehman clone could somehow arise here and instill the kind of zest for building a precinct by precinct organization, the GOP could return. But no, party leaders seem bored with that process. Instead they want to raise money to buy more television commercials in campaigns…the same dull formula that was ancient when I played the all-knowing wise-guy who contradicted Viehman in Minnesota. More and more dough for more and more TV commercials. Money to go to candidates who don’t have a chance.

TV commercials and good candidates are essential but what has been forgotten is the up-building of a process that Lincoln himself instructed his constituents on as a Whig: the identification of voters…the registration of voters…the keeping of lists where the voters are…the working the lists to get them out on election day…the safeguarding of the polls. Until that kind of political leader and process is installed, all the money in the world, all the charismatic candidates, all the high-priced political consultants (and some are drawing exorbitant fees after a string of notable election night disasters) television and radio commercials will not do it…if there is no organization.

It’s like, well, let me use an example I am supposed to know something about. It’s as if tons of money were spent on Quaker Oats TV commercials but there was no sales force, no force delivering the product to the supermarkets, no organization support…just tons of TV money to familiarize people with a product but no distribution system. Is the Illinois GOP organization dead? In the modern era, it never lived, dependent on liberal pressure groups pushing favorite son candidacies: labor unions and special interested backing Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan.

When was the last time a Republican precinct worker came to your house to see if you’re registered or able to get out to the polls? Never in my time in Park Ridge, in Maine township which has been supposed to be Republican…but which is only slightly so now. I’ve lived here since 1964. Lots of volunteers have come to my door representing churches, civic organizations, youth groups, minority groups, charities. Some working for liberal action groups, Democrats. No Republicans.

What role does this exhortation to Republicans to precinct-organize play in this memoir-writing? There is a personal component. Without Viehman building an organization, I would probably not have returned to Minnesota after my time with Quie and Judd was up…would have moved either back to Illinois or somewhere else with my new bride. But as it was, a new governor was elected in 1960: a pro-business Republican governor—one who beckoned me to come back as his press secretary. And that I did to take a job that taught me very much, in a state where three of our four children were born.

Vestiges of the original Viehman organization…along with the playbook he authored “Neighbor-to-Neighbor” have survived to build this new era in Minnesota with a conservative Republican governor (mentioned occasionally as a possible presidential candidate), one House Republican, Republican state constitutional officers, an enlarged Republican Congressional delegation, a conservative Republican mayor of hitherto Democratic St. Paul who went on to become a leading Republican United States senator, having defeated Fritz Mondale who was trying for a comeback. Today the state of Hubert Humphrey is on the cusp of voting Republican for president. The reason: the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program of Ed Viehman has an unique appeal to the Protestant evangelical and newly-conservative Catholic churches…and has been used exceedingly by the right-to-life movement: a movement that didn’t exist when Viehman initiated N to N.

Lord, when I started this piece I intended to write about the early happy days of our marriage…and here I talk about Republican organization! But Viehman’s success at organization in an atypical state did contribute to some of the happiest days of our young married life albeit up to our hips in alligators in state government…all thanks to him. There has not been a day that has passed that I haven’t thought of him…and how indebted I am to him for producing that experience for me and other Minnesotans which he couldn’t share. May he rest in peace. And may Illinois find someone just like him.

(NOTE: Incidentally the portrait of the undeniably handsome woman used in the memoirs a few days ago with a story about our courtship, isn’t of Lillian. It is of Catharine McKinnon, the feminist lawyer and professor at the University of Michigan. I gotta tell you Lillian is much better looking).

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